Friday, March 13, 2015

New York Times undercuts its own Hillary email obsession

In the 10 days since its initial story on Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email account during her time as secretary of state, the New York Times has run dozens of pieces on the subject. You might have thought they'd hit every possible angle, but on Friday they did something novel and unexpected: journalism that opens the question of whether this is quite the story they've made it out to be. Or whether it's a Hillary Clinton story at all.

One thing that's gotten buried in all of the breathless reporting about how shocking and unprecedented it is that Clinton used a personal email account for work is that it wasn't against the rules. If you paid really close attention, you might pick that information out of the ninth or twelfth paragraph of any given story, but it wasn't the impression the coverage was designed to leave. And even now, in an article running through the lack of rules about how federal agencies save and store emails and the wide array of ways different agencies deal with that, we get this:

“The wiggle room for Mrs. Clinton is that those policies didn’t come into play until after she was gone” from the State Department in early 2013, said Thomas S. Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, an independent, nongovernmental organization focused on transparency.
"Wiggle room"? Wiggle room is how we describe minor technicalities. I'd say that the lack of a policy governing how you handle this situation is something beyond wiggle room, unless Blanton has information about time travel somehow playing a role in the Clinton email saga.

Federal rules on saving official emails should be clarified, though email poses major challenges—I mean, do you save the umpteenth email rescheduling a meeting? The log-in info for a webinar you're going to struggle to focus on and mostly wish would just have been sent as a set of detailed instructions? But that's a really, really different story than what the Times and other outlets have been reporting about Hillary Clinton's email. And yet what it boils down to is that the policies in place during her time as secretary of state were vague and allowed a lot of personal discretion, that the laws have changed since she left the government, and that Republicans and reporters alike want to suggest that because she sent official emails from the same account, they have a right to see her personal emails. It's nuts, and yet it's been a media obsession for 10 days and counting.

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